One of Lacan’s most intriguing conceptualisations is that of the “Real“. Distinct from the “symbolic” and “imaginary” registers, the Real has been accompanying Lacan’s teaching from the very beginning – gaining centre stage in the later years of his seminars.
But what is the Real? First of all, let us acknowledge that it is not at all what we conceive of as “reality”. “Reality is psychic reality”, it is always already mediated by the mental domain. That is not to say that it is completely subjective, on the contrary, reality gains its “objectivity” in relation to our shared symbolic representations of the objects in our world. Accordingly we conceive of reality as always already engulfed by meanings, by concepts which “make sense” in an intersubjective way.
This idea is not new, nor is it so contemporary. We can easily identify its roots in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. According to Kant, any phenomenon in reality is already mediated by human intuition (that is, our sense of time and space), as well as by the human categories of reason. Thus, according to Kant, every object in the world is inherently constituted in relation to our rational categories and sense of time and space. Kant’s ingenuity – and what he called his awakening – was situating these human coordinated as an inseparable part of any objective phenomenon in reality. Claiming that time and space, as well as attributes such as quantity, quality, causality etc, are both subjective and objective at the same time – both conditioned by human existence and convey objective truth preceding human perception. Heidegger, and many phenomenologists after him, have taken this idea a couple of steps further. Claiming, for instance, that any encounter with an object is already embedded with meanings which are not necessarily rational but are “ready-to-hand”. For instance, when we see a hammer and initially conceive of it through the contexts of its use.
In Lacanian terms, we claim that any encounter with an object is already embedded with previously determined symbolic meanings. Or in other words, that things “exist” in reality as long as they are symbolically significant. Without having a symbolic attribution a “thing” cannot be an object, and thus cannot exist.
The Real, therefore, can be characterised as that aspect of an encounter with an object which does not have any symbolic designation. It is exactly that which does not “exist” in our reality. It is that part of our symbolic reality which is not signified. Nevertheless, That is not to say that it does not exist in the strictest of senses, but that if it does, it does so in a different way then the objects in our reality. This conception of the Real can be partially accredited to Heidegger’s use of the term “ek-sistence” – a unique form of existing from within which is utterly exterior. The Real ek-sists, and thus can be somehow discerned within our symbolic order, and even named, but its logic nevertheless remains ineffable, unsignifiable.
How then do we know that the Real ek-sists? By witnessing its determining effects on the symbolic order – on our reality. These usually take form in the limitation of the capacity of our symbolic imagination to traverse certain limits in our reality. In the way some inexplicable – and sometimes malevolent – order takes control of our psychic reality. The grandest example might be the inescapable limitations of death. It doesn’t matter how imaginative we would be in our attempt to avoid it, how many years scientists might work on overcoming it, death is inevitable. It is an unfathomable part of any human’s life, and even the cosmos. The Real of death – thus we name it – has an extensive effect on our life, on our reality, the way we conceive ourselves and the world (not to mention it’s capacity to put an end to all of these), but yet we cannot make sense of it.
Let us, for one last moment, venture into the field of mathematics in order to tell a story that might shed more light on this relationship between the Real and reality. Let us briefly explore one of the most famous unsolved problems in number theory and all of mathematics named the Goldbach’s conjecture.
The Goldbach’s conjecture states a very simple mathematical truth – that every even number greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers. Quickly reviewed, even numbers are numbers that can be divided by two – like 4, 10, 220 etc – and prime numbers are numbers that can be divided only by one and themselves – like 7, 13, 89 etc. Here are some examples:
8 = 3 + 5
10 = 3 + 7 = 5 + 5
100 = 3 + 97 = 11 + 89 = 17 + 83 = 29 + 71 = 41 + 59 = 47 + 53
You can try this at home with larger numbers, but I must warn you that mathematicians have already tested this conjecture with very strong computers up to the number of 4 × 10^18. Doesn’t matter what even number they chose, the conjecture always remained true. The big problem is that up to this day Goldbach’s conjecture remains unproven despite considerable effort. In other words, Goldbach’s conjecture unmistakably shapes the way numbers work, but on the other hand cannot be positively designated, except by name and by the effects it has on the interaction between numbers.
Let us consider the Real yet again. Like Goldbach’s conjecture, it has a permanent effect on the way the signification of our world functions – on the way we construct our world symbolically. Just like Goldbach’s conjecture, its effect can only be discerned in the patterns through which objects (or signifiers) compose our reality, but its underlying logic cannot be explained by symbolic means – it resists symbolisation. It can only be discerned in its effects and by the name we give it. It does not “exist” as a formulated or proven principle, but “ek-sists” as an unbreakable limitation to the way principles and formulas function. This is one way to address the Lacanian Real, through its relation to the uncompromising Truth of our existence. A truth only manifesting negatively in the order of things.